Heather Ferbert is a chief deputy city attorney for the city of San Diego and candidate for San Diego City Attorney.
San Diego’s independent, elected city attorney has worked to protect the city’s finances and the public interest for nearly a century. Yet now, some city councilmembers want to strip voters of their power to elect San Diego’s chief legal advisor and eliminate the independence essential to the office’s mission of protecting taxpayers and putting residents first.
It’s a harmful proposal that shouldn’t be allowed to succeed. Here’s why:
It’s anti-democratic. Instead of 800,000 San Diegans choosing the city’s attorney in an election, just nine councilmembers would get permanent political appointment power over the office.
Taking away the public’s right to vote is bad enough since no election means no accountability, no term limits, no salary restrictions, no requirement that San Diego’s city attorney even be a resident of San Diego. But no election also means no independence for an office created to be just that – independent from the other elected city officials – and that’s what’s most troubling.
One of the most crucial parts of the city attorney’s job is preventing abuses of power at City Hall. Indeed, a previous city attorney helped remove from office a lawless mayor who was sexually abusing women. Where would we be now if that city attorney was unelected by the voters and could have been fired by the mayor or council for any reason, or no reason at all?
But under this proposal, the city’s attorney would actually be forced to ask permission from the City Council to take action when the public’s trust is betrayed. How many politicians would ever vote to investigate themselves? It’s a recipe for legal disaster.
Even for the office’s routine work providing sound legal advice to the city, this proposal is alarming. An elected city attorney isn’t afraid to tell city officials that a proposal is unconstitutional or harms residents in unexpected ways. An appointed city attorney, who can be hired and fired at will, would put their job at risk every time they insist the city follow the law.
This isn’t theoretical. Look at the Trump organization trial. Donald Trump’s attorneys were fined for making frivolous arguments already rejected by the court. These lawyers, under immense pressure from the powerful person paying them, made reckless claims and ignored the law to suit their own interests. We can’t let this happen to the residents and taxpayers of San Diego.
The implications for the city’s 170 deputy city attorneys’ ability to impartially scrutinize decisions are significant too. As a chief deputy city attorney, my ability to protect the taxpayers and raise legal red flags depends on being free from political interference. The same is true for all the hardworking public servants in this office.
What’s more, our ability to retain talented lawyers to advocate for San Diego is hurt if the office is split in half and forced to serve solely at the City Council’s pleasure. There would be fewer opportunities for advancement in a smaller office and an ever-present concern that legal guidance could anger the city officials who have the power to stop you from being promoted.
Those who support this proposal claim voters don’t understand how to hire the city’s attorney, while elected officials do. That’s nonsense. I’ve been running for city attorney for nearly a year, and I can tell you San Diego voters are smart and take their jobs seriously.
Voters know the value of an independent city attorney, whether it’s protecting taxpayers, rooting out corruption, preventing gun violence or going after domestic abuse. And they certainly value their right to vote.
Less democracy and more lawyers aren’t going to fix the problems at City Hall. San Diego should continue to elect a city attorney that’s independent and accountable to the people.